Dietitian Dish: Do Fish Oil and Coconut Oil Really Help Your Heart?

February 15, 2018

By Saba Zahid, RD, LDN
Patient Experience Manager, Unidine Corporation

A healthy heart is central to a healthy body. One key factor that we have control over and can impact our heart health is our diet. And when it comes to diet, there is always a new and exciting idea about what is good for our heart and what isn’t. Most recently, coconut oil has been in the spotlight while other oils, such as fish oils and olive oil, have been a continued area of discussion around heart health.

Over the past few years, coconut oil has been touted as a healthy alternative to other fats, supposedly providing health benefits such as weight loss, improving metabolism and lowering cholesterol. These claims are based on a research study that showed these results. However, the American Heart Association recently put out a scientific advisory recommending against the ingestion of coconut oil. A review of over 100 research studies reaffirmed that the saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) and tropical oils such as coconut oil are high in saturated fat. In fact, it was found in seven controlled trials that coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol.

But what about the other research that showed the health benefits of coconut oil? A closer look at the specific study that many use to tout those health benefits reveals that it’s actually a specific type of fat in coconut oil that can contribute to weight loss and increased metabolism. That specific fat is medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs. However, the detail that is left out when discussing this study and the benefits of coconut oil is that the research study used a special 100 percent medium-chain coconut oil. The coconut oil that we purchase in stores typically only contains 13 – 14 percent of the medium chain triglycerides. So in order to replicate the results of the study and see those health benefits, you would have to consume large amounts of coconut oil, almost 10 tablespoons. And considering that the majority of coconut oil is saturated fat, it is not wise to have a large amount of coconut oil. Research has shown that small doses of medium chain triglycerides do not provide the same results.

Another oil that has been a popular recommendation for heart health is fish oil. Fish oil is a dietary source of omega–3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are important to many functions in our body, from muscle activity to cell growth, but our body cannot manufacture omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, we must get omega-3 fatty acids from our food. Mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, and anchovies are all fish that contain relatively high amounts of omega-3s. Other foods sources of omega-3 include flaxseeds, chia seeds, and eggs.

Many people turn to fish oil supplements to get their daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown that taking fish oil supplements can help reduce the risk of heart-related events and blood pressure. While fish oil supplements are generally considered safe, too much fish oil can increase your risk of bleeding and might suppress your immune response. Additionally, omega-3 fatty acids also have an impact on DNA, which affects if a person gets cancer. In fact, a study has found a link between omega-3 fatty acids and increased risk of prostate cancer. Try to get your daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids from food first. If you are considering taking fish oil supplements, be sure to discuss it with your doctor first.

If you need help following a heart healthy diet, why not try working with one of Shore Medical Center’s Outpatient Nutrition Counseling dietitians? We would love to help you improve your heart health through diet. To schedule an appointment, contact us at 609-653-4600, option 5. To learn more, visit our website at www.shoremedicalcenter.org/nutrition-counseling.

Saba Zahid, a registered dietitian from Unidine Corporation, is the patient experience manager for Shore Medical Center’s food and nutrition services. She oversees the medical center's patient food service program, clinical nutrition programs, and community nutrition initiatives.

Unidine is a dining management company that provides food and nutrition services to Shore Medical Center. Undine is committed to fresh food and scratch cooking for all of the clients it serves in healthcare, senior living, and business settings. To learn more, visit www.unidine.com.